Originally posted February 2011

In the Western context, notions of sustainable development often refer to the need to adjust existing economic models in order to maintain better balances between economic growth and social needs, while protecting local ecologies and reducing the negative impact of growth on the global environment.

In the developing world, however, sustainable development takes on a rather different meaning. With the agendas of developing nations focused on addressing basic developmental challenges such as economic growth, water scarcity, food security, and health, other environmental and social aspects are considered secondary at best and, for the most part, a luxury that a developing nation cannot afford.

In the absence of functioning economic models in the developing world, sustainable development here is not about adjustments to maintain balances. Instead, it is about using this economical tabula rasa to build the foundations of a new economic model in which sustainability and the environment are integral. One of these economic foundations is the built environment.

The built environment of our cities plays a major role in shaping the way we live and work, and given its relatively long lifespan, its impact is long lasting. Our buildings determine how much energy we use to maintain thermal comfort ,while our infrastructures determine how much energy we need for transportation. It is estimated that 40% of carbon emissions worldwide are produced from the occupation of buildings, with at least a portion of transportation’s 20% share being a consequence of the way our cities are planned.

Our built environment also influences our impact on the local environment as well as our collective health and wellbeing. Thus, as the cities of the developing world continue to grow, they continue to make decisions about the direction their development takes.

In the Middle East, the role of the built environment is becoming more pronounced as the region continues to experience rapid population increases and urbanization. Increased urban densities, together with the rise of consumerism, have not only led to an increase in environmental degradation locally, but they have also meant that the region’s traditionally low energy use — and consequently its carbon emissions — are set to rise and play a larger role in global climate change.

But embracing sustainable development in the built environment of the Middle East faces many challenges, which prevents it from becoming part of the region’s development framework and its building industry practices.

Challenges to Sustainable Development

At the urban scale, sustainable development faces the lack of an urban development framework in most of the region’s cities and the general lack of an encouraging regulatory environment that could stimulate a market change towards sustainable development. It also faces the scarcity of successful regional precedents in energy and water conservation as well as waste management. The latter issue is even more concerning given rising energy consumption in buildings, growing water scarcity, and the increase in waste generation that accompanies rising consumption.

At the individual building scale, sustainable development faces different — but equally difficult — challenges. Chief among which is the region’s hot and arid climate. While it is common knowledge that the rapid growth of many of the region’s cities was only possible with the help of the great energy resources discovered under its sands, it is perhaps a less known fact that these cities require great energy supplies to keep them habitable given the way they were planned and built.

Since the building forms that have shaped the cities of the Middle East in recent decades were mostly imported, they were not environmentally responsive to the region’s climatic conditions and relied on energy-intensive air conditioning to remain cool enough for human occupation. But given the extreme nature of the climate, for alternative building forms that are less dependent on fossil fuel to emerge and replace the existing ones, extreme design measures must be taken to reduce the energy associated with cooling in new buildings while maintaining comfort levels inside them.

Another challenge that faces sustainable development at the building scale is the region’s construction industry. The general lack of enforceable energy efficiency requirements for buildings together with the lack of financial incentives and the predominant lack of sufficient sustainable design knowledge among building professionals have all created an industry that is reluctant to adopt sustainable construction. If the industry is to embrace the new designs and alternative building forms described above, it must undergo a major transformation on all of these fronts.

Opportunities and Natural Potentials

With the challenges above in mind, the Middle East’s urban environments also have natural potentials for sustainable development:

 

The region’s increasing urbanization and high population densities have a natural potential for the construction of the highly-economical neighborhood-scale energy systems;

The region’s heritage of traditional building models can also provide relevant guidance for designs that are more energy efficient;

The region’s abundant solar and wind resources also present a potential for renewable energy systems to be effectively employed and integrated into the built environment.

 

In addition to these inherent potentials, recent interest in sustainable development by governments, non-governmental organizations, and professional bodies around the region presents further opportunities that can be capitalized upon. As it relates to the built environment, this interest has so far taken the form of efforts to establish sustainable development institutions and regulations.

The Moroccan government, for example, has recently announced the establishment of a national charter for sustainable development and the environment, while the governments of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt, and Jordan have started introducing energy efficiency standards for buildings. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and professional organizations in Jordan, Qatar, and the UAE have established green building councils in their respective countries with the goal of promoting sustainable design and developing — or importing — green building rating systems.

The governments of the Emirates and Saudi Arabia have also been engaged in commissioning sustainable design pilot projects, while others are considering providing financial incentives for energy efficient buildings and small renewable energy systems to make them commercially viable.

These positive developments and the opportunities they present indicate that the tide is turning — albeit slowly — towards more sustainable development in the Middle East. But they must be capitalized on if they are to overcome the challenges described above. The nature of the challenges faced by the region requires a commitment to sustainable development, a willingness to change the status quo, and a collaboration between governments, NGOs, professional bodies, and the public. The region has a lot to learn from the successful experiences of other developing countries that embraced sustainable development, but it will ultimately have to chart its own way if it is to create a sustainable future for its people.